How Brisbane helped spark a chain reaction for the hydrogen industry - Choose Brisbane

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How Brisbane helped spark a chain reaction for the hydrogen industry

When Brisbane hosted the World Hydrogen Energy Conference in 2008, nobody could have predicted what an important role this renewable energy source would have to play in Queensland’s future. 

A renewable fuel that can be used to power cars, homes and industry, hydrogen is emerging as both a clean energy solution and a major export opportunity.  

The recently released Queensland Hydrogen Industry Strategy 2019-2024 includes a $15 million industry development fund to support hydrogen projects. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has declared Queensland to be “at the forefront of hydrogen development”, and with good reason.

By taking advantage of the state’s solar, wind and biomass energy resources to produce hydrogen and using the existing gas pipeline infrastructure and port facilities to export it, Queensland appears to be in prime position to supply hydrogen to hungry markets such as Japan and South Korea, which have ambitious hydrogen uptake targets in place and no means to efficiently produce the fuel themselves.

Queensland’s burgeoning hydrogen industry was recently showcased to more than 80 prominent Japanese companies and research institutes at the World Hydrogen Technologies Convention in Tokyo. The Queensland Government has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Japan’s peak resources investment body, the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC), and a Statement of Intent with the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, with a view to providing a reliable and sustainable supply of renewable hydrogen energy to Japan. 

Australia-wide, the Federal Government has invested about $100 million in hydrogen research and development. The much-anticipated National Hydrogen Strategy is expected to be released later this year, following on the heels of CSIRO’s National Hydrogen Roadmap in 2018. A recent report from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) went so far as to predict that Australian hydrogen energy exports could contribute $1.7 billion to the economy and provide 2,800 jobs by 2030. 

Just this month, Kawasaki Heavy Industries subsidiary Hydrogen Engineering began construction of a $500 million Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) project in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. 

Australia’s hydrogen industry seems to be booming, but it hasn’t always been this way. 

When Dr Andrew Dicks led the bid to bring the prestigious World Hydrogen Energy Conference (WHEC) — held every two years at locations around the world — to Brisbane in 2008, Australia was far from emerging as a major player on the world stage of hydrogen production and export. 

“I remember attending a hydrogen conference in Broome in 2003 and being almost embarrassed by the conversations going on around the traps,” he says. 

“There was just a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of hydrogen energy. There were a few people who’d been working in the field but not many. So when the possibility arose to bring the World Hydrogen Energy Conference to Brisbane in 2008, I felt it would be a great opportunity.”

At the time that he chaired WHEC 2008, Dr Dicks — who is now the President of the Australian Association for Hydrogen Energy and an Adjunct Principal Research Fellow at Griffith University —  was working as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. 

“My goal with the conference was really to show people in Australia that there was quite a lot happening in hydrogen overseas,” he says. 

“We had people from all around the world come here and explain what they were working on, and it was really the first time anything like that had been done in Australia with any sort of input from overseas. I wanted to raise the profile of hydrogen here because I could see opportunities for Australia. I kept saying to people, ‘In years to come, you might find that some of these vehicle manufacturers are making hydrogen cars, and you won’t be able to run them in Australia, because you won’t have any hydrogen here. What are you going to do then?’” 

Over 630 delegates from 45 countries — including international and national hydrogen researchers, scientists and engineers, along with government and energy industry representatives — converged on the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre from June 15-19, with the largest contingent (71 delegates) coming from Japan. 

Dr Barry Jones, one of the National Trust’s Australian Living Treasures and an early advocate for action on climate change, gave the keynote address on ‘Supplying Energy to a Changing World’. An early version of the document that would eventually become CSIRO’s National Hydrogen Roadmap was workshopped with the international delegates, and the Queensland Government’s booth took pride of place at the centre of the conference’s trade exhibition.

Then-premier Anna Bligh described the event as a “major coup for Queensland” that put the state in the “global spotlight”. But while the conference provided ample networking opportunities and exposed both national and international delegates to new avenues, approaches and prospects, it didn’t lead to an immediate hydrogen boom in Australia.

Rather, the conference was just one crucial link in a complex chain reaction that eventually led to today’s state of play, and yet another example of the truism that ‘overnight success’ almost never happens overnight. 

“One of the things that came out of the conference was the formation of the Australian Association for Hydrogen Energy (AAHE),” Dr Dicks explains. 

“The event was underwritten by the Australian Institute of Energy, and it also attracted a substantial amount of funding from the State Government and the Federal Government, so at the end of it all, we had a surplus, which we used to form AAHE, a peak body for the industry.     

“To give us something to work towards, AAHE decided to host another conference, which ended up being the World Hydrogen Technology Convention in Sydney in 2015. At the same time, AAHE was knocking on the door of Toyota and Hyundai and encouraging them to bring their hydrogen vehicles to Australia, which has really helped to spark interest in hydrogen in Australia, because these are real cars — we’re not just dreaming here anymore.” 

Queensland is now preparing to ‘ship sunshine’ on a level Dr Dicks readily admits he could never have seen coming in 2008, even as he worked to put the local hydrogen industry on the map. 

“The thing you have to understand is that hydrogen export really didn’t feature in any of the earlier studies and road maps,” he says. 

“There was some discussion of it in 2008, but back then, the price of solar energy was such that you couldn’t realistically consider solar for generating hydrogen. Well, that’s changed. Over the last decade, the price of solar has fallen to such an extent that it is becoming economically feasible to generate hydrogen from solar electricity, which we have plenty of here.

“The other reason for Queensland to export hydrogen is that we’ve already got experience exporting LNG (liquified natural gas). If you can export LNG, it’s not too different to exporting liquid hydrogen. So this is now an industry with so much potential to grow in Queensland.” 

That potential could become a reality as soon as next year, as the Queensland Government aims to help power the Tokyo Olympics with renewable hydrogen exports. If that happens, it won’t be the first time the eyes of the world’s hydrogen industry have turned towards Queensland — and it almost certainly won’t be the last.